In the 1998 Melvin Van Peebles film Classified X, the pugnacious Black independent filmmaker recalled the films of his youth and how they portrayed Black people. As he put it, “Colored folks in the movies were always quakin’, ‘Yassah boss’-in’ and shufflin.’ They didn’t bear any resemblance to the majestic, hard-working Black folks struttin’ around the South Side, where the men were tough and fearless and the women were regal queens.”
That disparity between perceived image and lived truth motivated him to pick up a camera and correct the record.
Van Peebles was just one of the many underappreciated Black filmmakers of that time. There was also Oscar Micheaux, Julie Dash, Spencer Williams and Charles Burnett, among many, many others. However, as Van Peebles tells it, they all had to truly suffer for their art. They weren’t lying about in some grotto lamenting writer’s block either; their pain was truly existential, marked by “struggle, stuttered starts and stunted careers.” Which is why Van Peebles celebrates them in Classified X as “a courageous file of brothers and sisters who sacrificed to bring a few precious seconds of Black humanity to the silver screen.”
Burnett (no relation), director of the celebrated independent film Killer of Sheep, was spurred on by that same sense of drive and purpose — a will to create authentic Black art that could serve as a balm to the damage done to Black America by decades of Hollywood’s racist depictions of Black people and Black life.
“We were very much reacting against Hollywood,” he told Bright Lights film journal in a 2008 interview. “Most of us came into film in the 1960s with a concern about the images that were perpetuated by Hollywood movies, the stereotypes from Birth of a Nation on, and then vaudeville going back even further. So that was always implanted in us to try to correct that, even though we knew at the time, to some extent, that we weren’t going to get into Hollywood. But somehow, we felt that our films were going to be out there in small communities, shown in church groups or activist situations, to correct something Hollywood had been imposing on the community.”
Sadly, however, these films have mostly been lost to time, not really on offer from any of the usual streamers. Which is why, this past week, film archivist and screenwriter Maya Cade launched the Black Film Archive (BFA), an easily-accessible storehouse of Black cinematic art ranging from the silent era of the 1910s to the end of Blaxploitation in 1979. (The archive is also partly a response to the Very Online opinion that “Black films are always about trauma,” or the idea that movies that have typically represented Black life tend to focus on slavery, sexual assault and/or violent death.) As Cade explains on the landing page of the site, “The films collected on Black Film Archive have something significant to say about the Black experience; speak to Black audiences; and/or have a Black star, writer, producer or director. This criterion for selection is as broad and inclusive as possible, allowing the site to cover the widest range of what a Black film can be.”
To get you started, I put together a variety of ways that you can binge on the different films Cade has collected…
The Revolution Will Not Be Televised… But It Will Be Put on Film
Last year, Daniel Kaluuya won the Best Supporting Actor for his role in Judas and The Black Messiah as Chairman Fred Hampton of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense. In the film, Kaluuya was mesmerizing, and he fully earned his Oscar for how he brought Hampton back to life. But what’s even more powerful is to see the real Black Panthers in their own words. As such, the short Off the Pigs! and the Agnès Varda-directed doc Black Panthers are highly recommended. Going the fictional route, there’s Black Jesus, which features the iconic Western star Woody Strode as the real-life freedom fighter turned Prime Minister of the Congo, Patrice Lumumba. The Italian-made film was a rare star turn for Stode, who had to travel to Europe to be taken seriously as an actor.
The Jamaican Connection
The BFA features a number of films made outside of the U.S. that speak to the Black experience — two excellent examples are Rockers and The Harder They Come. The latter stars Jimmy Cliff as a rude boy, yardie gangster folk hero of the people. The film boasts a soundtrack worth bumping all on its own. Meanwhile, Rockers was intended as a documentary, one that would capture reggae at its creative peak, but it blossomed into a feature-length film that stars reggae legends Gregory Isaacs and Burning Spear, as it shows life at the Harry J Studio where Bob Marley made reggae famous.
Legendary Badass Women
Josephine Baker and Bessie Smith are Black women who deserve all the flowers, all the fawning memorials, all the praise due. Yet, they remain unknown (or merely names from the past) to many. Here then is your chance to see the talents that made them famous — witness Smith sing the heart out of the blues, and Baker charm the target of her seduction, knowing that she could seduce the devil himself, but satisfying herself with a mere mortal.
Great Sports Legends Who Played Themselves
If you were to make a biopic of Muhammad Ali, the greatest fighter to ever live, who would you cast? In recent times, producers tried Will Smith, who did a decent job. But back in the day, they knew that the only person who could convincingly play Ali was Ali himself. This idea wasn’t new. It was the exact same thinking that led to Jackie Robinson playing himself in the Jackie Robinson Story. Admittedly, since neither men are actors, they somewhat struggle as themselves, but that’s also wildly entertaining to watch.
In the era of big Hollywood musicals, Black audiences were treated with musicals of their own, starring the big musical talents of the day — Lena Horne, Cab Calloway, Fats Waller, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, along with musical comedy stars like Eddie “Rochester” Anderson and Dooley Wilson. The films are often slightly darker in theme — in Cabin in the Sky, a struggling Black man (Anderson) who’s killed over gambling debts is sent back to Earth and given six months to save his soul from eternal torment in Hell. For its part, Stormy Weather is a low-key biopic for Robinson and shows how success was hard fought (and won) for a Black entertainer in his day. Come for the musical numbers, and stay for the Nicholas Brothers epic dance sequence where they famously do the splits down a flight of stairs as a game of leapfrog.
All-Stars of Jazz
These three films feature the first great art form invented in America — jazz. In Jivin’ in Be-Bop, you’re thrilled by the hyper-kinetic genius of be-bop music at the time of its creation, and thoroughly charmed by the irrepressible wit and whimsy of Dizzy Gillespie. The musical numbers for “Salt Peanuts” and “He Beeped When He Should Have Bopped” are particularly strong. Jammin the Blues is more of a short documentary that features legendary jazz men like Lester Young and Illinois Jacquet. Sweet Love, Bitter stars comedian Dick Gregory in a dramatic role as a fictionalized Charlie Parker. The film captures the energy of a New York that looks best in black and white, a world of cityscapes set to moody jazz. It’s a tone poem to a bygone era, one kept alive on film.
Powerful Dramas That Confront Race Without Slavery
In 1961, Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun was turned into a movie starring Ruby Dee along with a very young Sidney Poitier and an even younger Louis Gossett Jr. The film follows the Youngers, a Black family in Chicago in the early 20th century that’s awaiting a payout from a life-insurance policy that looks to change everyone’s lives — if only. Shadows from John Cassavetes is an equally trenchant and moving look at midcentury Black life. Filmed in an urgent black and white, the indie does and says things no Hollywood film would as it examines a love story between a white man and a Black woman, as well as how it affects her family. While others were arguing about civil rights, this film looks at how we truly live with one another.
The Blaxploitation Badasses
Finally, no Black Film Archive would be complete without a few entries from the Blaxploitation era, when Afros and turtlenecks ruled the ‘hood and bell bottoms and satin shirts mixed with blood, guns and attitude. The films typically boasted a super-dope soundtrack, and the star was either a badass woman or man who took no shit from nobody and loved to stick to the Man at every turn. It was an era of defiance and aggression, motivated by political slogans like “Black is Beautiful” and “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud.”
The stars of Blaxploitation movies lived that vibe. Pam Grier as Coffy, Richard Roundtree as Shaft, and Jim Kelly as Black Belt Jones — they were bigger than life and they made Blackness look like a superpower after decades of it being some clown shit on-screen. Shaft was the first and set the mould. Superfly has that Curtis Mayfield-soundtrack that makes the film genius, and Kelly in Black Belt Jones was like the Wu-Tang Clan’s biggest wet dream of a hero, only the film was made long before the Wu-Tang Clan was out of diapers.